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Imagining the future at/with/for Create Caribbean – Schuyler K Esprit, PhD
Caribbean Cultural Studies,  Dominica,  Higher Education

Imagining the future at/with/for Create Caribbean

A recent look at my CV for its regularly scheduled update turned out to be the culmination of my building existential crisis. Something so simple yet shocking did it for me: there is only one line referencing Create Caribbean. “Founder and Director” with a link to the website. It is listed under “Relevant Positions” and no mention is made anywhere else, not under scholarship or publications. I had been on a slow burn recently, facing a minor mid-career crisis. And I suddenly panicked; what if people reviewing my CV never actually follow the link? What will they think this is? A side hustle? I was confused but mostly annoyed with myself.

I had to face the reality that, even in my most active discussions about Create Caribbean, I had underplayed my own role in building up this institutions and had pitched much of my lectures, presentations and papers on the pedagogy and the impact on the students. I also spent a lot of time in these public spaces discussing the benefits of partnering with Dominica State College as the pilot location for the institute. But I had done very little work in documenting my own scholarly contributions.

I was now faced with a big question:  how do I capture the work I had poured into Create Caribbean over the past five years. How do I capture that contribution in a way that will make me feel accomplished? And why did it even matter to me at all? For each of the digital research projects curated by the research institute (many of them still living works-in-progress) I have served as project designer, project manager, principal investigator, programmer, writer, editor, photographer, reviewer. I’ve provided guidance to the student interns that have come through the program on digital humanities theories, methods and tools. I have designed and taught a course relevant to the projects’ research goals.

This really isn’t (just) about the CV. A few months ago, I had to launch another crowdfunding campaign for Create Caribbean. I was embarrassed to have to do that and took it quite personally. I wanted the community of scholars and other supporters who showed up for us after the hurricane to be proud that we had made a comeback and were producing more important projects. But the speed with which we got back on our feet was costly – I was emotionally drained and financially drained by the end of it. But the students kept coming to the office looking for any way to get hands-on, and even after I decided to take a break from admitting new interns into the program, they kept showing up and asking to be part of the experience. So I kept going and just needed to ensure that I could afford to pay the young people who worked for me to keep the place running and still afford to set sufficient resources aside for my future and for my self-care. 

I have also been the principal financier for the organization, committing a note-worthy percentage of my income to its operations, including recovery costs following the Category 5 Hurricane Maria of 2017.  We have received support from so many organizations and individuals over the years, including from some of the readers of this blog. A number of you have reached out to me and some of us have already collaborated on arrangements that have made a big difference in our outcomes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. For general project funding, we are not eligible for many US-based grants without a US institution as partner or principal collaborator. I have had to be innovative in the way I acquire resources, partnering with Caribbean institutions who share our mission, in order to pool funding for projects. I have been a one-woman show with some logistic and administrative help from a colleague with little digital humanities experience working in a field outside the humanities. We have both had a steep learning curve in this; I have had to adopt a business mindset and she has had to catch up very quickly to what we do and how. But the cost of day-to-day operations have been mine since inception. Surely, this warrants more than one line on a CV, right? But I’ll leave room here for my colleagues and friends to chime in on the practical aspects of this particular point about funding.

I established Create Caribbean for myself and it has certainly benefited so many people. But it is a truth better said out loud. Create Caribbean was the result of me creating the kind of academic and professional environment that I wanted to see for myself – as a student, a scholar and a professor. It still remains for me my greatest achievement, PhD be damned (that was so easy compared to this). It confirmed for me that it was possible for small change to ripple into big change.  I was cutting down big trees in the higher education, in the Caribbean educational landscape, in the attitudes toward Caribbean culture and history. My small axe was hitting exactly the right spots and toppling a lot of the biases, expectations, obstacles and lies that said scholarship had to look and sound like a fixed set of things to be valued, reviewed, accepted.

So far, thirty-five students have successfully completed the research and service learning internship program and have gone on to continue their education or enter the workforce. They tell me all the time that Create Caribbean changed their lives for the better. When I was not being the academic director of all the research and outreach programs that they took on, I was serving in the role of mentor, guidance counsellor, pseudo therapist, academic advisor, event cheerleader and promoter. In the last five years, I’ve comforted interns over some of the most personal and life changing circumstances of their young lives, situations so grave I worried they would not be able to make it out. And after Hurricane Maria, when they all reached out and said they’d rather be together making change than home staring at their trauma and loss, I had to step up and make room for that community, because at Create Caribbean we create access, opportunity and community.

That was my promise to them. So I did. But I was affected. I had been affected by all of it, not least of which was the fact that my career seemed to be doing well in exactly the opposite way than I had ever intended. In academia in the US and the North, my work was seen as successful, brave, experimental: all good things, all true. But these were things that were costing me everyday. I was building something I couldn’t possibly sustain. When I first conceptualized Create Caribbean, I had made these fancy three-year projected budgets, learning so much from the institutions where my colleagues worked about how much it actually costs to run something like what I was trying to do. Those projections are a joke now: first, because I grossly misunderstood the Caribbean socioeconomic context I was entering at the time. I had no idea that if this money didn’t come from extreme grant writing or a Miss Havisham somewhere, it wasn’t coming. Second, I grossly underestimated what I could accomplish without all the items in my fancy budget and surprised myself beyond my wildest dreams. The projects at Create Caribbean are evidence that it is diligence and commitment to the study that produces solid scholarship, not just money.

But this isn’t an endorsement of the way I’ve done things. In fact, it is the strongest cautionary tale. The emotional cost to me has been high. I have chosen care and mentorship of these students, sometimes even before and over my own care. I did that because I felt that I was working mostly alone. Taking time off, taking a break from them, would mean that the operation would come to a screeching halt. But the truth is, I can only do so much and for so long. I am tired. Trying to keep up with my scholarship and teaching outside of the DH-focused work of Create Caribbean, major administration jobs at higher education institutions in the Caribbean that place high demand on my schedule, and my commitment to causes in my local community in Dominica have taken their toll. That is a lot for one person and I am finally admitting it.

I’ve recently made a transition into a new position at The University of the West Indies. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to contribute to Caribbean higher education in a way that is meaningful, and most importantly in a place close to home that feels like home.The transition into this new phase of my career has created some restlessness and self-doubt. When I left the United States and my position at Trinity Washington University, I was most worried about what it would mean to be an independent scholar. I worried a lot about the impact on my career as many non-affiliated scholars and contingent faculty experience. Once I had established Create Caribbean and fell deeply into the work, we had so much success that it dawned on me I had created my own institutional affiliation (I have given talks on this recently and will write more about it). I made a comfortable and mutually beneficial move to Dominica State College and proximity made it possible to toe the line between administration and my own scholarship. But now that I’m part of a large institution and away from the organic community I’ve built in Dominica, it’s dawning on me that I am searching again, for affiliation, community, kinship. It’s like starting all over again. 

Even after all this time, I still feel deeply the distance from the networks and kinships I’ve built in US academia. There are little to no talks to attend, or grad school friends to have coffee with or hugs to receive from mentors and advisors in your field, especially I do not live on an island with one of the residential campuses. Creating intellectual community is hard. Travel is expensive. I also don’t have the flexibility of travel that came with being a faculty member. Administration is a 12-month, nine to whatever time you’re tired kind of experience. I try to use all the leave time I have on Create Caribbean and catching up on the work that I love deeply – Caribbean literary studies.

This seeming isolation is one of the biggest costs to me for living here in the region. In order to make a space for myself and to make valuable impact to communities, not just the feel-good type of impact for myself, I had to give up my desire to remain solely in this research, teaching and service bubble. In the context of a small country with limited human resource and a region with a higher education industry only now on the rise, I had to go where I was needed, where I had skills and talent, where I would be useful. So I have worked as an administrator – as Registrar, in academic affairs, institutional research and now program development and support, and student engagement. On most of these days since 2015, at least once a day, I have asked myself if this is really what I am doing with my PhD, that all I ever signed up to do when I started this thing was read my books and write about them in order to help black people around the world be free. But as the elders say, when I was a child, I did (and said) childish things. This is part of the work, the administration. Even at Create Caribbean, in my most ideal setting, sometimes the work feels like work.

The gap between the type of research I was trained to do in graduate school and the type of research or professionalism expected of me now feels wide. Here, as in most other contexts of academia, we are still making a case for the value of the humanities. In small island developing states, making this case is even harder, almost futile. We now call it the “creative industries” as if to mask our embarrassment for arts and humanities exploration in the cloak of enterprise and development, making sure it’s something we can monetize as a region to the Madam of Caribbean economic survival, tourism. Even when it’s clear that in this new urgent condition of climate change, that the idea of tourism itself is as ephemeral as the dot com days.

This was part of my motivation to conceive Carisealand in 2015 when I first found kinship with Oonya Kempadoo and she introduced me to the name and the digital platform with no idea of how exactly she wanted to develop this particular concept. The Carisealand project is the biggest project I have designed and undertaken. As a project centered on the intersection of digital studies, Caribbean cultural studies and environmental humanities, it’s the most important, most timely of all the work I’ve done at Create Caribbean thus far.  Now that the project itself is expanding in ways that I could not possibly see years ago, I’m collaborating with specialists and institutions to help share the load. I had done a lot of work teaching my students and interns the benefits (and responsibilities) of collaboration through my Digital Humanities course and the digital research projects we’ve done prior to this one. But I did not do a very good job of collaborating myself. I was always in fear that my mission would be diluted, that I would ‘sell out’, that I would somehow lose creative control if I brought in too many people into the operations of the organizations. Sometimes I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t know what I was doing, so I hesitated to ask for help. I’ve now to let all that go. When you build something from scratch that is your labor of love, this is a lesson you have to learn on your own, no matter how many colleagues offer help or how many times your rational side tries to convince you.

One example of how I’ve tried to overcome that fear is by engaging Dominica State College faculty from a range of disciplines to contribute to a blog on topics relevant to the Carisealand project. Especially since I’m physically distant from the Create Caribbean lab at Dominica State College, it’s a great way to maintain that institutional relationship and have subject experts that the student interns can consult throughout the course of their work on the project.

Working at Dominica State College allowed me to return to some of the comforts of teaching, research and collegiality that were key to my creative and professional survival. Now that I’m at The University of the West Indies, I find myself wondering how exactly to position myself and Create Caribbean in relation to this new institutional landscape. After all, Create Caribbean has its own institutional structure and has room to be perceived as a pet project or service work. Except what I do there is hard scholarship that has significantly contributed to shaping the landscape of Caribbean studies and digital humanities simultaneously. That’s just fact. My dream was to see a presence of Create Caribbean is as many Caribbean territories as possible, with Dominica as our ‘flagship’ location. Moving to a new country and a new institution feels like part of that plan. But it is more complicated than that and as time goes on, I hope I will find some clarity about how to make that happen. The reality is that I may end up finding creative ways for Create Caribbean to extend its reach across the region from exactly where it is right now. And I’m more than okay with that. I just want it to grow and to last. And I’m aware now, more than ever, that despite the help and support of my colleagues and friends who have their own professional and personal commitments, that I need more support and I need the time and clarity to aggressively seek it out.

One thing I’m sure of: I’m definitely making some changes to my CV, starting with looking at how my colleagues and counterparts in DH have represented their work to offer the best clarity and visibility to their labor and outcomes. In a world where the work of women of color is so undervalued, in a profession where it is frequently dismissed, overlooked or forgotten, I think it is important for me to commit to record the contributions I’ve made and be confident and proud of those interventions.

This makeover is not just for my CV, though. It’s I’m currently writing a book now that’s under contract with a publisher. It’s the book I wanted to write but wrote my dissertation instead. It’s the book I started to write but shelved, and established Create Caribbean instead. It’s seen the backseat for far too long and I want it to be a reality now more than ever. But I also want to excel in this new position. And I also want Create Caribbean to survive and thrive. Meanwhile, I want to have fun and take vacations and release the anxiety long enough to smile and laugh with my family and friends. But there’s only one of me. Like Michelle Obama says, you can have it all, just not at once. But maybe with your help I can. Here’s the question: what do you imagine is the future of Create Caribbean and if you think it matters, how can you help with that?

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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